Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’s novel Arrowsmith is a fascinating look into the personal and societal questions surrounding scientific research and the lives of those who pursue it.

I just finished Sinclair Lewis’s fascinating novel Arrowsmith, published in 1925 (plain text here). If you are a scientist or are very interested in science, you should consider reading it. Arrowsmith plots the trajectory from youth to middle age of Martin Arrowsmith, a medical doctor turned researcher, and it touches on many of the daily topics a researcher encounters, as well as the personal and societal impact and questions of their work. In no small part, the force of this book comes from the fact that it was actually co-authored by Paul de Kruif, who had worked both as a professor at the University of Michigan and researcher at the Rockefeller Institute. In addition to the tremendous attention to scientific detail, it is likely that many of the characters and situations arose from his personal experience.

The book influenced many people, especially in increasing their appreciation of carefully controlled clinical trials and their skepticism of quack remedies and “scientific” therapies that were rushed to market before they’d been properly vetted. The book goes into great depth about the pressures put on a scientist (Arrowsmith) to rush to publication and creation of remedies. Lewis touches on these topics both in the context of a university (in the fictional mid-western state of Winnemac) and a top-flight research laboratory in New York City. These topics and many other aspects of the book remain relevant today.
The plotting is a bit slow at times, but the writing is delightful. The brief and wonderful descriptions of incidental characters especially stand out. Here’s a great example:

Watters’s house was new, and furnished in a highly built-in and leaded-glass manner. He had in three years of practice already become didactic and incredibly married; he had put on weight and infallibility; and he had learned many new things about which to be dull. Having been graduated a year earlier than Martin and having married an almost rich wife, he was kind and hospitable with an emphasis which aroused a desire to do homicide.

As someone raised in Michigan and who did my undergraduate degree in Ohio, I love the critiques of the boosterism and conformity in small to mid-sized towns in the context of bland sameness across the mid-west. As an atheist, I also appreciate the way Lewis brought up the explicit religious overtones of the mid-west and navigated his essentially agnostic/atheist main characters through that without hammering on it too much (which probably would have been unthinkable for a novel in the 1920s anyway). It was interesting for me to discover that de Kruif was born in Zeeland, Michigan and died in Holland, Michigan. Zeeland is less than an hour drive from my hometown of Rockford, and when I was growing up, we used to joke that God had his address in Zeeland (because it was such a religious town). In general, West Michigan is overwhelmingly and stridently Christian of the you-will-go-to-hell-if-you-don’t-believe-in-our-version-of-Jesus variety. This became annoying and tiresome for me growing up as a non-Christian in that area, so I personally appreciated the well-placed satirical points on organized religion in Arrowsmith.

As a scientist, I love the description of the joys of research and the tensions between doing research, earning a living, and having time/headspace for the other things in life. Here’s a great passage about Arrowsmith’s burning passion for research at a time when he is working an intern en route to becoming a doctor:

But on night duty, alone, he had to face the self he had been afraid to uncover, and he was homesick for the laboratory, for the thrill of uncharted discoveries, the quest below the surface and beyond the moment, the search for fundamental laws which the scientist (however blasphemously and colloquially he may describe it) exalts above temporary healing as the religious exalts the nature and terrible glory of God above pleasant daily virtues. With this sadness there was envy that he should be left out of things, that others should go ahead of him, ever surer in technique, more widely aware of the phenomena of biological chemistry, more deeply daring to explain laws at which the pioneers had but fumbled and hinted.

I have often felt this fear of missing out while devoting myself to other things (teaching, family, etc), and this passage captures that brilliantly. Arrowsmith eventually returns to research, after a circuitous path through being a physician and public health worker. Though I myself have chosen quite different priorities on these than Arrowsmith does, I’ve experienced the same scientific thrills and motivations, and I know plenty of people who tend more toward the pained but satisfied scientific asceticism that Arrowsmith ultimately reaches. A review of Arrowsmith by Noortje Jacobs puts it well like this: “the novel in many ways also presents its readers with a bleak vision on the possibility of having a scientific life while remaining a sociable human being.” I think it is fair to say that pretty much everybody engaged in serious scientific research navigates this tension: when research is going really well, it is an amazing experience of flow that begs for more and provides further rewards if you give it; however, we are also social animals that must nurture the relationships we choose to (or must) keep. Arrowsmith provides a detailed window into a person who chooses to live for his pure research and it highlights the costs of that choice for others, without getting sentimental about it.

So much has changed, but so much has stayed the same. While I was reading the book, I found myself already working out the storyline for a modern day Arrowsmith, with an emphasis on artificial intelligence rather than biology and clinical medicine. We have lots of ethical issues to sort out in this front, and as an atheist mid-westerner who has worked in academia as a research professor and in industry as both a consultant and co-founder and chief scientist of a startup and who cares a lot about what we do with machine learning, I’m perhaps particularly well-suited to do that someday.